Review by Sean Boelman
Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century is the type of movie that is hard to explain in a way that would make it appealing to normal people, but perhaps more accurately, it’s truly glorious in a way that words cannot describe. A hilarious menagerie of foot fetishes, ice skating, and ejaculating cacti, this is probably the most unorthodox biopic anyone has ever made.
The film tells the story of W.L. Mackenzie King, a young man who dreamt of becoming the Prime Minister of the Dominion of Canada, overcoming the political and societal forces that would have him not fulfill his self-proclaimed destiny. Obviously, Rankin takes some… artistic liberties with the life of his subject, but in doing so, he creates a witty and original political satire.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Rankin’s script is its world-building. Although King’s rise to power took place in the 1910s and 1920s Canada, this is not set in the actual world. Instead, it is set in a Canada where Whac-A-Mole-style “baby seal clubbing” and a cutthroat ice skating race determine who will rise to power.
And while the world’s modern democracies haven’t quite gotten that absurd, it can often feel like it. Even though the movie is about a Canadian politician, King’s commentary rings true anywhere. The fact that we Americans live in a country where a politician can lose the popular vote twice and still falsely claim victory is ridiculous.
Even for those who don’t know much about Canadian politics, the movie will resonate surprisingly strongly. King wasn’t particularly known for being charismatic or charming, but Rankin makes him into a really compelling and sympathetic subject. And although one would expect his quirks to be off-putting, they are actually what makes him so endearing.
The cast absolutely commits to the zaniness of their roles, and this is what really sells the film above everything else. There are some casting choices that are definitely unique, like gender-swapping the performers, but it makes for some great gags (and there may or may not be a deeper political connotation to some of these decisions).
That said, the thing that makes Rankin’s movie so enormously ambitious is its visual style. It is shot like a silent film from the early 1920s (albeit with dialogue), with a lot of obvious influences from German Expressionism, and it gives the movie an almost ironic feel. The contrast between the old-timey look and the undeniably modern approach is brilliant.
The Twentieth Century revels in its oddities, and thankfully it pays off, creating a riotous comedy that isn’t afraid to push the envelope. It’s not going to be for everyone, but for those who are in its niche, it will be an absolute hit.
The Twentieth Century opens in theaters and virtual cinemas on November 20. A list of participating locations can be found here.